Sunday Poem


NO, not a Sonnet. One can break rules, and this is definitely worth it. If I have quoted this before, it needs not matter

I was less encouraged when only a couple of kids liked George Herbert. After our customary discussion failed to kindle any admiration or awe, I stayed up half the night rereading most of “The Temple” and preparing a lecture. I never lecture. The kids listened politely to my best defense of my favorite poet, the only poet whose book sits always at my bedside, the only poet whose poems I read every week. They were unimpressed. Although they tried not to hurt my feelings, they just didn’t really think Herbert was up to snuff. “Up to snuff,” as I was to discover, means “as good as John Donne.” In every end-of-year conference, the kids listed Donne as one of their favorite poets. “He’s a pimp,” according to Hilary. Sammy holds a slightly more nuanced view: “I’m like, ‘John, you’re such an asshole.’ But I mean, I love him.” When asked to write her epitaph, Alex composed a single couplet:

John Donne,
Here I come.

I like Donne as much as the next guy, but I hadn’t meant to start a cult. These responses suggest that students in the 21st century can still have an intense and dynamic relationship with poetry, even old poetry. There is real value and insight in the first impressions of readers who have no emotional stake in the subject, no axe to grind, no schooling to see past. I can’t look at Herbert without hearing Eliot’s voice in my head whispering, “Brilliant poetry. Brilliant.” When my students read Herbert, they read nothing but Herbert.

Brian Stavely

That poet, that asshole, that pimp, wrote some of the deepest religious poetry in the English Language. Eliot is good, and his Ash Wednesday was posted here in six parts. But Donne is better that Herbet and more than his equal.The critics bowdlerize this as metaphysical and talk about the politics of the Puritans.

We should not be that stupid.

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

John Donne